Why did some countries fare quite well throughout the pandemic, while others did not? How did the health crisis affect Czech-German relations? Which role did the communist heritage play in tackling the crisis? And where are we heading once the pandemic is under control?

Jiří Pehe, director of New York University Prague, provided answers to these and other questions throughout a 75-minute online public debate hosted by Zuzana Lizcová (AMO) on Friday, April 30, 2021. The event was part of the 12th round of the Czech-German Young Professionals Program (CGYPP), an interdisciplinary program for outstanding early-career professionals from Germany and the Czech Republic. Starting out with a discussion of country performances throughout the pandemic, the vivid debate touched upon the role of governments, parties, the European Union, and the media in the crisis.

Pehe argued that the communist legacy of many Central European countries turned out as an asset when adopting hard measures in the first period of the pandemic: Societies that were historically acquainted with strong restrictions such as closed borders performed strikingly well in spring 2020. The “smart” measures of the following months, however, were novel to these societies and much harder to perpetuate.

Common vaccine procurement strategy of the EU member states was not a failure

According to Pehe, the countries which did particularly well throughout the entire crisis, such as Denmark shared certain features: They were led by consensus-seeking (and often: female) leaders, they relied on experts when making decisions, benefitted from a high general trust in civil service, and were flexible enough to take their own steps when the EU approach fell short. When asked whether the common vaccine procurement strategy of the EU member states was a failure, Pehe answered with a clear “no”: “Every country was free to order vaccines on its own and many countries did so, but the deals they secured individually turned out to be more expensive”. While Pehe admitted that the crisis clearly was momentum for lobbyism, corruption, and beat-the-system strategies, he also stressed several positive side-effects of the crisis. He beliefs that populist leaders have lost rather than gained public support, and that the trust in public media and EU institutions has increased. He also assumes that Czech-German relations have improved more than that they suffered, as Germany’s offer to provide help when Czech hospitals were reaching their limits was perceived as a very positive signal.

While the effect of the pandemic on the economic and political landscape in the region remains to be seen, Pehe closed on an optimistic note: Depending on the outcome of Czech and German national elections later this year, he predicted that we might witness a transformation to a younger, greener post-Covid era.

You can watch debate online on YouTube and Facebook:

The CGYPP is initiated and financed by the Czech-German Fund for the Future. The online seminar was co-funded by the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung in the Czech Republic.

Author of the report: Johanne Klindworth